In Renaissance Italy art was often a family business, and no family of painters was more successful than the Bellini. Jacopo Bellini, who was born about 1400, was the foremost painter in Venice in the decades around 1450. His sons Gentile and Giovanni acquired an even greater reputation, as did his son-in-law Andrea Mantegna. Today the fame of Giovanni has overshadowed that of his brother and his father, partly because many more of his paintings are extant. But Jacopo too has retained a special place in the history of art, not so much on account of his pictures, most of which seem rather derivative, but because he left two books of drawings, one now in the Louvre and the other in the British Museum, which are quite unlike any other surviving works of art from the fifteenth century.
The books are roughly the same size, slightly over sixteen inches high and about a foot wide. The one in Paris is of parchment, with most of the drawings in ink, while that in London is of high-quality paper, and almost all the drawings are in leadpoint. Originally each volume probably contained a hundred double-sided pages. Virtually the whole of the London book has survived, but about thirteen pages of the volume in Paris are missing.
Although usually called sketchbooks, the two books are rather different from other works normally categorized in this way, typically consisting of drawings of figures, animals, decorative features or antique fragments which could be reemployed in the workshop. Several sheets from such a book, indeed, were bound into the Paris volume. Evidently they were included by Jacopo because he wanted to use the parchment, not because he wanted to preserve the earlier drawings, though in the event he did not erase them all. He even made a few sketches of the same kind, for example some studies of lions, one of which was later used by Giovanni Bellini in an early painting; but most of his drawings consist either of single figures or small groups of figures occupying most of a page, or of multifigure narrative compositions, usually with very elaborate architectural settings.
Since virtually all Venetian narrative paintings of the mid-fifteenth century have disappeared, these drawings have a particular interest. What gives them an added attraction is that they are not just preliminary sketches for pictures, but highly finished and carefully considered designs in their own right. They are the only known group of such drawings from this period.
Very few people are able to see the original drawings. The Louvre book is still bound as a single volume and would be damaged by repeated handling. The sheets of the British Museum book are mounted separately, but they cannot be displayed because leadpoint is particularly susceptible to light. Scholars have therefore usually had to study Jacopo’s sketchbooks in reproductions published about eighty years ago, which are available only in specialist libraries. A new facsimile of the Paris book appeared in 1984, and now the art historian Colin Eisler has reproduced all the drawings in both books, which for the first time have been combined in a single volume. Although these reproductions are less than full-size, in other respects they are superior to anything else available. This is mainly because the London drawings, many of which are very faint, have been photographed with an infrared technique that reveals details which were previously almost invisible. For the Paris drawings, too, new color transparencies have been made.
Eisler’s book thus makes the sketch-books accessible in a new way. But he has done much more than this. He has produced a full-scale monograph on Jacopo, with an account of his career, a catalog of the paintings, and a digest of documents. Most of the book, though, is taken up with the drawings. These are reproduced not according to their sequence in the sketchbooks, but grouped by subject. In the accompanying commentary Eisler discusses the possible relationship between drawings and lost paintings by Jacopo; he also considers the links with Renaissance art in Northern Italy, and with other aspects of Italian life, such as chivalry.
The text bears witness to the author’s wide reading and his extensive knowledge of Venetian fifteenth-century art. He is undogmatic and consistently fair-minded in his summaries of other scholars’ ideas. But the book is an unwieldy accumulation of facts, observations and hypotheses, and the decision to examine the drawings according to subject matter often leads to repetition and unfocused speculation. The inconclusiveness of much of the analysis is in a way appropriate, for one of the things that emerges most clearly is just how little we know about Venetian art in the middle years of the fifteenth century; and these drawings simply compound the problem, because their relationship to contemporary paintings is so difficult to define. Eisler himself believes that the parallel is quite close, since he assumes that one of Jacopo’s main concerns was to represent particular subjects, in other words that he was producing what amounted to pictures in another medium. But before this view can be accepted it is important to establish just why these books were made.
Eisler does not provide a full answer. He recognizes that neither volume is really like a conventional sketchbook, but he seems inclined to accept the view of Francis Ames-Lewis, that they “are the sole surviving examples of what was probably standard studio property,” and that the drawings were produced by Jacopo “for his own interest and self-conscious concern with his own abilities,…a record to be inherited by later generations of a family workshop and to establish an artistic tradition in compositional design.” There is little evidence, however, that Renaissance artists worked in quite this way. What was transmitted from painter to painter was a maniera, a style, normally understood as a distinctive way of representing figures, especially physiognomy and drapery, not a particular approach to composition.
Moreover, the sketchbooks contain few examples of the most common themes of Italian painting, representations of individual saints or groups of saints in a non-narrative context. In the two books there is only one image of the Madonna, and she is shown full-length and standing, which is relatively unusual in pictures. Equally, it is difficult to believe that the narrative compositions were made as models for other painters. Had that been Jacopo’s purpose, why did he produce no fewer than eight drawings of the Flagellation of Christ, a subject only rarely requested by patrons? Why were the main protagonists in his drawings so often shown inconspicuously in the distance, wholly overshadowed by the architecture? And why did he make so many studies of figures fighting, or on horseback, or in mythological guise—drawings that have no recognizable narrative content and that seem not to belong to the standard repertoire of fifteenth-century painting at all? Small wonder that Eisler’s discussion of the possible relationship with contemporary Venetian paintings is so inconclusive.
Another view of these drawings is that they are autonomous works of art, indeed perhaps that they are the first examples of Venetian capricci, initiating a tradition that was to lead to Guardi and Tiepolo. Although something of such an attitude is surely reflected in some pages of the Paris book, with their very elaborate penwork, as a general explanation it is anachronistic and unconvincing. Renaissance artists may sometimes have produced works for their own pleasure, but the labor involved in these two books seems quite disproportionate to such a hedonistic purpose. Yet they were evidently not made as products for sale. Both were inherited by Gentile Bellini, who probably took the Paris book to Constantinople in 1479 and later bequeathed the London volume to his brother.
Important clues to the function of the sketchbooks are contained in an appendix to Eisler’s book written by Albert Elen, who gives an analysis of their original structure. The one in the British Museum was made from fifty large sheets of expensive paper manufactured in the same mill at the same period, very probably by the same man. This suggests that the paper was acquired by Jacopo in a single batch, and therefore that this sketchbook is not just an accumulation of drawings made for different purposes at different times, but is the result of a single conscious decision. Elen also shows that when Jacopo made the drawings the paper was probably already sewn into separate quires of five folded sheets each. As one might expect, most of the more elaborate or finished drawings were on recto pages, though sometimes the design was subsequently extended on the adjacent verso. Some at least of these versos were drawn after the quires were bound together as a single volume. Whether the bound sequence of quires corresponds to the order in which they were completed is unclear, but each one has a distinctive character and the final arrangement does not seem to be entirely random. Toward the front of the book there were mostly studies of large individual figures or figure groups. In the middle there tended to be more emphasis on the setting, whether architecture or landscape, and toward the end a much greater concern with elaborate exercises in perspective.
Why then did Jacopo make the London book? If not as a model book for the studio (and even the use of an impermanent technique like leadpoint seems to argue against that), or as a product for sale or for his own pleasure, then there seems only one obvious alternative—for his own instruction. Jacopo is thought to have been trained by Gentile da Fabriano, one of the foremost exponents of the so-called International Gothic style. Some of the paintings most often ascribed to him certainly look very like those of Gentile, but in the sketchbooks that debt is much less evident. Instead, as scholars have repeatedly observed, the drawings have much more in common with Florentine art, particularly in the treatment of perspective but also to a lesser degree in the figure style. It was probably in the 1440s that Jacopo was first exposed to a significant amount of this art, when several Florentines worked in Venice and Padua. He seems, therefore, to have been one of those rather unusual Renaissance painters who worked in one idiom until he was middle-aged and then tried to come to terms with a new style based on very different principles. I believe that he made the London book specifically for this purpose. The drawings differ in subject matter and approach from paintings of the period because they were made as exercises, not as preparatory studies for pictures. Usually Jacopo chose traditional subjects as a starting point, because this would have been a natural thing to do, but sometimes he did not bother. And he used leadpoint on paper, because it allowed him to make corrections.
The Paris book, which is not completely filled, probably reflects a later stage in Jacopo’s process of self-education, although he may well have begun it before he finished the London volume. Some of the drawings were made in silverpoint, which cannot be erased, and this in itself suggests a greater self-confidence on Jacopo’s part. At the same time, he seems to have become more flexible in his approach: in the British Museum book Jacopo consistently made drawings with the base line parallel to the bottom of the page, whereas in the Louvre drawings he varied his procedure, often making designs in landscape format, with the base line parallel to the spine. Several of the compositions in Paris are very closely related to drawings in the London book and in general they seem to be more accomplished; the treatment of perspective is more confident, the architectural space more complex, the figures less wooden, and there is a greater interest in architectural and decorative elements derived from classical antiquity. It must, however, be admitted that some of these features may not be due to Jacopo at all, because almost all the outlines of the Paris drawings were later reinforced in ink, and these additions were the work of several hands. It is also the case that the drawings in the second half of the Paris book are the ones that most closely resemble those in London. At first sight this might indicate that the Louvre book was the earlier of the two. But the argument depends on the assumption that the pages at the front of the book were drawn first. It is equally likely that when the individual quires were bound together the ones containing the latest and most accomplished drawings were placed at the beginning of the volume.
If this account of the origins of Bellini’s books is correct, it might explain why nothing similar survives. Far from being normal studio equipment, such books could well have been very uncommon indeed. After all, Jacopo’s own situation was uncommon. He was a successful, established painter trying to master an unfamiliar style; and this happened in Venice, where he had only a few works of art by Florentine artists to guide him. Historians like to talk about artistic influence as if mere exposure to a particular work would be enough to convey the lessons it could teach. Jacopo’s drawings reveal just how laborious a process of stylistic assimilation might be. They are as much a testimony to his professional commitment as to his sensibility. At the same time, they allow us to see, with unique clarity, the aspects of his job that he found most challenging or rewarding.
Giovanni Bellini, by contrast, is known to us chiefly through his paintings, which include many of the most familiar images of Renaissance art. Somewhat surprisingly, there exists no detailed catalog of his works. Publications of this kind have now gone rather out of fashion, in the face of demands for new approaches to the history of art. But it seems strange, when historians of all kinds are interested in art, that many art historians should now be reluctant to make their own expertise available by providing the sort of book that they have been trained to write and that would be most useful to nonspecialists. Part of the problem, perhaps, is that to produce a good monograph on an artist along with a detailed catalog involves a great deal of work, much of it boring, because the author is expected to take nothing on trust and to confront all the questions that the evidence presents, rather than the ones that happen to arouse his or her interest.
In the case of Giovanni Bellini there are plenty of obvious art-historical problems. None of his major altarpieces is documented and almost no works from the first half of his career are dated at all; the attribution of many pictures associated with him is controversial; and his relationship with other artists in Venice, such as Antonello da Messina, has still to be fully understood. Rona Goffen touches on several of these issues in her Giovanni Bellini, but generally does not explore them in depth. Thus she provides a checklist of paintings, divided into those she considers autograph, those produced with the help of assistants and lost works, but in many cases it is impossible to establish when she thinks individual pictures were produced or why she judges them as she does. One must conclude that such questions do not really interest her, or that she believes they will not interest her readers.
Likewise, she is not much concerned with the purely pictorial aspect of Bellini’s paintings, though she can write perceptively and accurately about such things when she chooses to do so. Throughout the book her main preoccupation is with the subject matter of the paintings, or, to put it another way, with appreciating Bellini’s art “in its cultural and historical context,” which she defines as “Venetian humanism and spirituality.” This sounds a rather rarefied, high-minded context for a Renaissance painter; and so it proves to be.
Goffen’s approach is made plain by the very first picture she discusses, a small panel now in Birmingham showing the aged St. Jerome in the desert, which is Bellini’s earliest signed work. We are told that Jerome himself “had provided the text” for such images, in a letter to his disciple Eustochium. Goffen quotes from two passages in this letter, the first describing when Jerome retired into the desert, there to be tormented by memories of the pleasures of Rome, the second about a dream in which he was taken before a judge and scourged for reading the works of Cicero instead of Christian authors. She believes that the picture “clearly represents the aftermath of [Jerome’s] visionary trial. Now the saint reads the Bible, not Cicero: his conversion is complete.”
She does not mention that the two episodes are quite unrelated in Jerome’s letter, that his torment in the desert was caused not by the reading of Cicero, but by lust, and that the dream took place when he was still a young man. Nor does Jerome’s letter contain any reference to lions although Giovanni painted one sitting before the saint and raising a paw pierced by a large thorn. This is the lion, incidentally, that was copied from Jacopo’s sketchbook, though Goffen does not trouble to tell us so. The animal is mentioned in the Golden Legend of Jacopo da Voragine, a medieval text that would certainly have been familiar to Bellini. Voragine even accounts for the ass that Bellini showed in the distant landscape, for he tells us that Jerome set his lion to guard it. In short, the learned text invoked by Goffen and then misrepresented by her does not fit the picture at all; the popular text that she passes over in silence explains the imagery very adequately.
Many art historians have found it hard to give up the idea that Renaissance artists, like scrupulous academics, consulted ancient texts in Latin rather than modern ones in Italian, despite abundant evidence to the contrary. One of the most striking examples concerns Bellini himself. It was long recognized that his only major mythological painting, the so-called Feast of the Gods, painted in 1514 for the Duke of Ferrara (and now back on display in the National Gallery of Art after a highly successful restoration), showed the attempted rape of the nymph Lotis by the lecherous Priapus. This story was mentioned very briefly by Ovid in his Metamorphoses and recounted twice in his Fasti. Bellini’s picture is clearly related to a woodcut first used in the 1497 edition of an Italian paraphrase of the Metamorphoses by a medieval writer named Giovanni de’ Bonsignori, and then in later editions of both Bonsignori and Ovid.
The relationship of Bellini’s painting to Ovid’s various texts is much less obvious. The composition includes for example Jupiter, Neptune, Apollo, and Mercury, each identified by an attribute—eagle, trident, musical instrument, and caduceus. But these attributes may originally not have been present, and the gods themselves look curiously undistinguished. None of these deities was specifically mentioned by Ovid in any of his accounts of the myth, or by the Renaissance commentators on these passages. In the first version in the Fasti the guests were identified as pans, satyrs, and nymphs; in the second the only name was that of the hostess, Cybele, whom Ovid described as wearing a mural crown, but no such figure was painted by Bellini.
The mystery was partly solved in 1974 by Philipp Fehl, who was the first scholar to realize that Bellini had used Bonsignori’s paraphrase, not Ovid’s original Latin (which, of course, he almost certainly would not have been able to understand). Because Ovid merely alluded to the story of Lotis and Priapus in the Metamorphoses, Bonsignori, who probably had not read the Fasti, evidently felt free to provide a version of his own, which involved citizens of Thebes celebrating a bacchie festival. This was the story Bellini originally painted, presumably thinking that Ovid had written it. The changes to the figures that were then made—the inclusion of the attributes of the gods and also the lowering of the drapery of some of the women, transforming them from Thebans into nymphs—brought the picture closer to the spirit of Ovid, but not much closer to the letter of his text (or rather, texts). Goffen’s account of these issues is not altogether clear or accurate, but she recognizes the importance to the painting of Bonsignori. What she fails to recognize is the much more dubious status of Ovid, at one point even suggesting that Bellini “collated Bonsignori’s commentary with the ovidian text.” Here, as in the discussion of the early St. Jerome, the desire to associate Bellini with the scholarly values of the humanists is evident; and here too the evidence points in the opposite direction.
Most of Bellini’s surviving paintings are religious images, and hitherto only a handful have been regarded as presenting problems in their subject matter. Most show the Madonna and Child, sometimes alone and sometimes accompanied by other saints. Although such pictures might seem straightforward enough, Goffen argues that they are filled with religious symbolism that has long been overlooked, here repeating and expanding ideas already proposed in her earlier book, Piety and Patronage in Renaissance Venice.1 In the case of one picture, Bellini’s triptych in the Venetian church of the Frari, she provides what seems at first to be striking evidence in support of this approach. The work in question shows the Virgin enthroned in front of a niche, holding the Child and flanked by Peter, Nicholas, Mark, and Benedict. The imagery seems conventional enough, especially if one knows that the name of the patron, Benedetto Pesaro, accounts for the slightly unsual presence of Benedict.
But Goffen makes the surprising claim that the picture incorporates allusions to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, the idea that the Virgin alone of all mankind was singled out by God to be conceived free of the stain of Original Sin. Pictures of the Immaculate Virgin, whose cult was being promoted by Franciscans at this period, begin to appear in Italy toward the end of the fifteenth century, and they normally follow the same formula: Mary is shown without the Child, being singled out by God the Father, who touches her shoulder with a rod, and there are usually explanatory inscriptions. The Frari picture looks very different. Goffen states the Bible held by Benedict (see illustration on page 30) is open at Ecclesiasticus 24, a passage frequently invoked by advocates of the Virgin’s immaculacy; she also says that a Latin inscription in the niche behind Mary is a quotation from an office of the Immaculate Conception by a certain Leonardo de Nogarolis dating from 1478. Even in Bellini’s own day, of course, such hints would not have been enough to make what Goffen considers an important theme of the picture clear to most people. There is nothing about the Immaculate Conception in the inscription itself, which is simply a prayer, so one would have to recognize the source of the quotation to appreciate its significance; and since only a few words in Benedict’s Bible are legible, and then only from very nearby, one would need to have a real Bible to hand in order to identify the passage at which it is open.
In other words, it would seem that Bellini’s picture would have conveyed one meaning to the general public, another to those in the know. But this turns out not to be the case. Benedict’s book is actually open at Ecclesiasticus 1, presumably because this chapter contains a famous passage about “the fear of the Lord,” a central idea in the Benedictine rule. As for the inscription in the niche, it bears no relation to anything in Nogarolis’s office, which, incidentally, was never published in Venice, but in Vicenza. The altarpiece, in other words, has nothing to do with the Immaculate Conception.
In this case Goffen was evidently misled by a hasty and uncritical reading of earlier scholarship. She is also overzealous in applying an immaculist interpretation to Bellini’s other great Venetian altarpiece of this period, the huge picture from the Franciscan church of San Giobbe, in which the Virgin is once more shown with the child enthroned in front of a niche, this time accompanied by six saints. Above the Virgin is a mosaic half-dome, decorated with five seraphim, each bearing the words “Ave Gratia Plena,” and with the inscription “Hail, undefiled flower of virgin modesty.” Goffen claims that in the context of a Franciscan church both inscriptions “clearly refer to the Immaculate Conception.” It is true that the first of these texts, the words with which Gabriel addressed Mary at the Annunciation, was always invoked by immaculists in support of their cause; but all believers would have regarded the angelic salutation as appropriate in an altarpiece of the Virgin. Gabriel’s words were so closely associated with her that they were used at the beginning of that most famous of prayers, the Hail Mary. And there is nothing about immaculacy or conception in the second text, which appears to refer instead to the venerable and uncontentious doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity, the idea that her virginity was intact during and after the birth of Christ. Far from being overtly immaculist, the inscriptions in Bellini’s picture were apparently chosen so as to be entirely uncontroversial.
Other aspects of Goffen’s interpretation of the San Giobbe altarpiece are equally questionable, particularly her claim that the imagery was meant to have political significance. Thus she says that the architectural setting “is best understood in reference to the ducal chapel of San Marco,” although it does not reproduce any part of San Marco and although Saint Mark is not included among the saints. She also thinks that the seraphim and their inscriptions are intended to remind us of the foundation of Venice, which supposedly occurred on March 25, the date of the Feast of Annunciation (and, as the Venetian diarist Marin Sanudo remarked, the date of the creation of Adam and of the Crucifixion). If that association of ideas had been important in this context, it is difficult to understand why Bellini painted seraphim rather than an Annunciation scene in his mosaic. There is no reason to see anything more here than an invocation of the Virgin, of the kind that appears in countless Renaissance paintings throughout Italy. The notion that in Venice religious art and political ideas were particularly closely linked is now very much in vogue, but it seems to be more a product of the ingenuity of art historians than of any solid contemporary evidence. No one has shown, for example, that the Annunciation was any more common as a subject in Venice that elsewhere, and no one has produced a representation of this story with an inscription linking the theme to the foundation of the city.
In Bellini’s altarpiece Mary is shown with her right hand around the seated child and her left hand raised, presumably in greeting to the faithful viewing the picture. But for Goffen, “her left hand recalls the praying gesture of the orant: she is the priest of Bellini’s illusionistic church, and her Son is her eucharistic offering.” Never mind that it is normal Christian practice to pray with two hands; never mind that the only well-known example of a fifteenth-century painting illustrating the not very common idea of the priesthood of the Virgin (produced in Amiens and now in the Louvre) shows Mary dressed as an Old Testament priest and Christ as an acolyte; never mind that priests do not normally sit down with the Eucharistic offering on their knee. Goffen is only one among many art historians in recent years to draw a parallel between the infant Christ and the Eucharistic Host. Yet one will look in vain for such an idea among Italians who have written about their own art over the past four centuries. In any case, if the comparison were really valid, it ought to work both ways: just as the Virgin holding up the Child supposedly anticipates the priest elevating the Host, so the priest ought to recall the Virgin’s action. But to the best of my knowledge no one ever said this—not surprisingly perhaps, given first that the priest eats the Host and second that the Virgin is a woman.
The kind of analysis that Goffen applies to Bellini’s altarpieces is also used for his most popular products, his paintings of the Madonna and Child for domestic settings. In these pictures, which were endlessly copied, the Virgin is usually shown standing behind a parapet, on which the Child may be sitting, lying or standing. Goffen argues that the parapet alludes to Christ’s tomb, which she thinks is symbolically equivalent to an altar. Inevitably she then claims that the Christ child is meant to bring to our mind the Eucharist. Several features about this analysis are questionable. For one thing, Bellini did not show tombs in these paintings, but parapets. For another, altars do not symbolize the tomb of Christ (although many art historians seem convinced that they do). They represent the tombs of martyrs, which is why each one has to contain the relic of a martyr.
A more general problem with Goffen’s analysis is that it implies that the focus of interest and devotion in these paintings is the infant Christ. Historically, this seems unjustified. Such pictures are usually described as paintings of the Madonna, and when they contain inscriptions, as they often do, these are far more commonly about the Virgin than about Christ. In short, these pictures are reflections of a widespread devotion to the Virgin, not to the Eucharist or the Christ child. This is not to say that Renaissance paintings reflecting specifically devotion to the infant Christ or to the Eucharist do not exist, merely that they look very different from Bellini’s Madonnas.
Although it seems gratuituous to interpret a simple formal device like the parapet in symbolic terms, this does not mean that Bellini invariably avoided religious symbols. In several of his paintings of the Madonna and Child, for example, there are fruits, either held by the infant Christ or placed on the parapet. These surely demand some kind of explanation, yet all that Goffen has to say concerns one picture in which the Child holds a fruit, “possibly an apple,” which she rather mysteriously explains as a symbol of the fate of Christ and his mother. In fact, it is manifestly not an apple, but a pear, a fruit which Jacopo Bellini, too, included in paintings of the Madonna, as did other Venetian artists of the period. I would suggest that the reason why fruit appears in pictures of this type may be very simple: perhaps the fruits allude to Mary’s fruitfulness, and more specifically to the phrase in the Hail Mary, “Blessed be the fruit of thy womb.”
Of course, in the absence of contemporary texts about such paintings there is no way of proving the validity of my interpretation. But the same is true of the theories proposed by Rona Goffen. Our disagreement, which mirrors controversies that have arisen in the study of fifteenth-century Flemish painting, depends on our very different ideas about the attitudes of people in the Renaissance toward works of religious art. Yet faced with the quantity of scholarly exegesis of religious pictures that has appeared in recent years, we may too easily overlook just how insubstantial are the foundations on which such analysis is based. Thus Colin Eisler remarks at one point, without seeming to feel the need to provide any supporting evidence, that the Christ child is shown naked in reference to “his corporeal sacrifice.” Maybe this was widely accepted in the fifteenth century, but in 1570 it was evidently not known to a professional theologian named Johannes Molanus, who as part of an attack on indecency in art, wrote:
It is well known that artists often paint or sculpt the infant Jesus naked; but for this they are widely criticized by men of no little piety and wisdom. For what sort of edification can there be in this nakedness?
Molanus did not even entertain the possibility that there might be symbolic significance in Christ’s nudity in paintings. There are plenty of scholars today who seem unable to imagine that there might not be. But who is to say that Molanus was wrong?
Yale University Press, 1986; reviewed by Felix Gilbert in The New York Review, July 16, 1987.↩
‘Rediscovering the Bellinis’: An Exchange November 22, 1990
Yale University Press, 1986; reviewed by Felix Gilbert in The New York Review, July 16, 1987.↩